O God, Our Help in Ages Past
DESCRIPTION: "O God, our help in ages past, Our hope for years to come, Our shelter from the stormy blast And our eternal home!" The singer hopes for help and protection from God, who has existed since before the world came to be
AUTHOR: Words: Isaac Watts (1674-1748) / Music: Credited to William Croft (1678-1727)
KEYWORDS: religious nonballad
FOUND IN: US(NE)
REFERENCES (1 citation):
ADDITIONAL: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Hallberg, 1982), p. 35, "O God, Our Help in Ages Past" (1 text, 1 tune)
NOTES [1177 words]: The history of this song is rather complex. Julian, p. 875, tells us that "This is the first part of his C[ommon] M[etre] rendering of Ps[alm] xc, in 9 st[anzas] of 4 l[ines], which appears in his Psalms of David, &C., 1719, p. 229, and entitled 'Man Frail, and God Eternal.'" Watts's original text began "OUR God, our help in ages past," and often was published with only stanzas 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9 of Watt's original nine. It was John Wesley who in 1737 published it with the first line "O God, our help in ages past," with some additional changes; this is probably the most familiar version today. Julian calls this one of Watt's finest compositions, and his best paraphrase, but that didn't prevent at least two other authors from grafting other material into it, although only the Wesley version seems to be remembered.
Isaac Watts (1674-1748) has been called the "father of English hymnody". His father was a Calvinist preacher who sometimes twice up in prison for his radical beliefs and eventually kept a boarding school at Southampton (Julian, p. 1236); his mother was from a Huguenot family, and sometimes took little Isaac with her when she visited his father in prison (Johnson, p. 34).
An excellent student and quick learner (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 554), Watts studied Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin (Johnson, p. 34), and eventually became a pastor of a non-conformist church, but had to resign the post in 1712 (Johnson, p. 34) after "a fever shattered his constitution (Julian, p. 1236), having apparently made earlier attempts to give up a post which he could not fill properly (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 554). He spent the rest of his life working for Sir Thomas Abney as tutor and chaplain. He was given his "unsolicited" D.D. by the University of Edinburgh in 1728 (Julian, p. 1236)
According to Morgan, p. 25, he was dissatisfied with the musical materials available to him -- and so "'invented' the English hymn" (although others say he took "his cue from Dr. John Patrick; Davidson, p. 166). He also produced a book, The Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament -- which would better be called works vaguely inspired by the Psalms than actual imitations or paraphrases. "Joy to the World," which doesn't really bear much similarity to Psalm 98 on which it is allegedly based, is an example of this. Watts did come under criticism for this; Morgan reports that Thomas Bradbury called his writings "whims" rather than "hymns."
Despite these objections, Watts is credited with writing some 600 hymns, of which Julian, pp. 1237-1241, says 454 are in "common use"; on p. 1594, he adds that there are almost a hundred other Watts hymns in "some minor hymn-books." Among the most famous are this, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," "Hush, my dear, be still and slumber," and perhaps "Joy to the World." He also produced the well-known line "When I can read my titles clear to mansions in the sky," although that was taken in many different directions after his time.
NewCentury, p. 1141, says that, in addition to his hymns and books of religious instruction, Watts produced "'How doth the little busy bee,' one of his pioneering instructive poems for children." I would suggest that it did better at nauseating than instructing children; the only reason I can see for remembering it is that it inspired Lewis Carroll's "How Doth the Little Crocodile."
Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 554, makes the interesting comment that Watts was "almost if not quite a Unitarian, and extremely liberal in social as well as religious views" -- an attitude seemingly not known to many of the conservative denominations which sing his hymns. He also experimented significantly with meter and poetic forms, although these experiments seem to be forgotten.
Julian, pp. 349-350, says of him "Notwithstanding the contempt with which is name is often mentioned... few have left such a solid contribution to our best hymns as Isaac Watts... and no one has so deeply impressed himself on their structure.... Inheriting from the tradition of the metrical psalms a healthy strength of thought and a habit of broad and jubilant praise, impressed through the paraphrases with the necessity of a rich scripture groundwork, and supplied with a wide range of subjects by his immediate predecessors, he is in his best pieces gifted with a soft richness of diction, and a free vigorous rhythm.... His faults are bombast and doggrel. Turgid epithets and tawdry ornaments were the fashion of the time.... No one that has studied the hymns that preceded him will wonder that Watts was indifferent about doggrel.... It is due to Watts to point out how frequently in his prefaces he speaks of the 'fetter' of 'the old narrow metres,' the necessity of giving each line by itself a complete sense, and of 'sinking it to the level of a whole congregation as the accepted restraints under which he wrote.... Watts's place in this history is to be estimated not only by the pieces he has left us, but by his enduring influence on the structure of our hymns."
Ironically for one of nine children, he never married and had no offspring of his own (Kunitz/Haycraft, p. 554).
Works of his in the Index include "O God, Our Help in Ages Past," "Through Every Age, Eternal God" (indexed as "Highbridge"), "Hush, My Dear, Lie Still and Slumber, and perhaps "When I Can Read My Titles Clear (Long Time Traveling)," "On a Dark and Doleful Night," and "Joy to the World."
The author of the tune, "St. Anne," is less certain; Stulken, pp. 376-377, reports that it was originally published anonymously in the Brady and Tate metrical edition of the psalms (1708), where it was used for Psalm 42 ("As pants the hart for cooling streams"), but that contemporaries attributed it to William Croft (1678?-1727). Reynolds, p. 159, notes that both Philip Hart's 1720 Collection and John Church's 1723 Introduction to Psalmody attribute it to Croft, and says that both Hart and Church knew Croft, so he is inclined to accept the attribution. He was that it is named for St. Anne's Church, Soho, where Croft was organist. He adds that the opening phrase seems to have been older and independenly known, being used by Handel in the anthem "O Praise the Lord" and as the base theme of Back's Fugue in E flat, the "St. Anne Fugue." This obviously raises the possibility that someone else adapted that musical phrase before Croft worked on it.
Reynolds, pp. 290-291, says that Croft was born in Warwickshite in 1678 and died in Bath in 1727; he became organist at St. Anne's in 1700 (remaining there until 1711, according to McKim, p. 157), and later became organist for Westminster Abbey and composer for the Chapel Royal. Early in life he wrote some secular music, but later turned entirely to sacred music. Other than his "Funeral Sentences" and this tune (if he wrote it), very little of his work seems to be remembered.
Whether Croft wrote "St. Anne" or not, it later became the basis for Bach's "St. Anne's Fugue," and was used in Handel's "O Praise the Lord," according to McKim, p. 211. - RBW
Last updated in version 4.2
- Davidson: James Robert Davidson, A Dictionary of Protestant Church Music, Scarecrow Press, 1975
- Johnson: Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns, Hallberg, 1982
- Julian: John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology, 1892; second edition 1907 (I use the 1957 Dover edition in two volumes)
- Kunitz/Haycraft: Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, Editors, British Authors Before 1800: A Biographical Dictionary, H. W. Wilson, 1952 (I use the fourth printing of 1965)
- McKim: LindaJo H. McKim, Presbyterian Hymnal Companion, Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993
- Morgan: Robert J. Morgan, Then Sings My Soul, Book 2: 150 of the World's Greatest Hymn Stories, Nelson, 2004
- NewCentury: Clarence L. Barnhart with William D. Haley, editors, The New Century Handbook of English Literature, revised edition, Meredith Publishing, 1967
- Reynolds: William Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal, Broadman Press, 1976
- Stulken: Marilyn Kay Stulken, Hymnal Companion to the Lutheran Book of Worship, Fortress Press, 1981
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